One of the deepest ways people deal with grief is by turning their pain into a desire to help others, says Dr. Ralph May.
May, co-chairman of the Suicide Task Force of Indiana County, has had the chance to see individuals undergo such transformations firsthand.
He counts among the bravest of them Cindy and Steve Vrana.
The Clymer couple lost Cindy’s daughter and Steve’s stepdaughter, Desa Bane, in October. The 15-year-old Penns Manor High School student had committed suicide.
“They have not let the loss destroy them, and they’re helping others,” said May, who is also the chief clinical guidance officer at the Community Guidance Center in White Township.
“These are extraordinary people. They’ve experienced the loss of their daughter under circumstances which are terrible. And they continue to process through their grief, but one of the things they’ve been able to do is that.”
Not long after Desa’s death, the Clymer couple became involved with the Suicide Task Force.
Their involvement quickly evolved into efforts to spearhead a number of events, among them, the Walk for a Wonderful Life, which aims to show support for and increase awareness of suicide.
The walk will take place 3 p.m. Sept. 8 at Mack Park in White Township. It marks the beginning of National Suicide Prevention week.
Registration begins at 1 p.m. In addition to the 5k walk, the event will also feature speakersOther events that the task force will host during suicide prevention week include the Sept. 10 Lights of Love night — part of a national effort where everyone is asked to leave a light on in their home to support suicide awareness —and a candlelight vigil at 8 p.m. Sept. 14 at Memorial Park.The Vranas, both 46, decided to organize the Walk for a Wonderful Life after taking part in the national Out of Darkness walk in June. They walked 16.5 miles at the overnight walk in Washington, DC.
There, they were able to connect with others whose lives had been impacted by suicide, either through a loved one’s situation or their own. Walkers wore beads to signify the distinction.
“It allowed you to bond with people because you knew by what bead they wore who it was they lost,” Steve said.
“It made it easier. There are a lot of people out there that suffer or struggle with suicide and it just gives you the understanding that you’re not alone.”
Showing others that they are not alone is a big part of the upcoming events, according to the Vranas.
“We always say, ‘we can’t bring Desa back, but we can help somebody else,’” Cindy said.
Those with the task force aim to provide support to people struggling with suicide in any number of ways, be it through the death of a loved one or their own personal battles.
“We want everybody to know that help is just a phone call away,” Cindy said. “Hopefully, somebody gets pulled in the right direction if they’re struggling.”
While the walk takes its name from the classic Jimmy Stewart movie, it wasn’t until she began organizing the events that Cindy realized the connection, she said.
She had never seen the movie before, but when she did, the ties between its message and the event were clear.
“I had no clue the movie was about suicide,” she said.
The Vranas and others with the task force plan to make the Walk for a Wonderful Life an annual event.
The task force, which reorganized this year, has been in existence since at least the ’80s. Its membership includes representatives from more than 30 groups in the region, among them those from law enforcement, social service agencies, schools and mental health organizations.
Its efforts to help people dealing with suicide include a network of support services and public outreach campaigns.
“Sometimes you struggle alone with something like that when connecting can help you,” said Bonni Dunlap. Director of Indiana County Human Services, she is also a task force co-chairwoman.
The group also works to host trainings for the general public and those involved in education so that they can learn to identify suicide risk factors.
“It’s just very relevant and very important that this information gets out to the public,” said Kathleen Abbey-Baker, task force coordinator.
Suicide, she said, is not something to be ashamed of, but part of mental illness. Efforts to remove the stigma surrounding suicide may enable those suffering to seek help.
“Mental illness is an illness just like any other illness,” she said. “You go to a doctor and you get it treated.”
According to reports from County Coroner Michael Baker, 13 people in Indiana were victims of suicide last year. While the numbers are in the average range, the ages of the victims are troubling. Like Bane, many of those who took their lives last year were young.
The average age of suicides in the county last year was 35, among them, Bane and another teenager.
A number of years ago, local suicides were seen at a rate of between three and five a year, according to Abbey-Baker. Now between 10 and 15 per year is not uncommon.
“It’s a problem that is growing state and nationwide,” she said.
The Vranas hope that events like the walk will help turn the problem around, one step at a time.
“If it takes us reaching 1,000 people to reach just one,” Steve said. “It was a successful mission.”
Registration details, as well as suicide support information, are available at the task force’s website: www.stf32.com.